Jaume Roig’s Espill: mirror of NAWALT against men’s sexed protest

A Greek text from before the twelfth century recounts the harsh punishment of a man who made critical statements about all women. Since then, the literature of men’s sexed protests has struggled with how to address matriarchy’s responses of NAWALT, meaning “Not All Women Are Like That.” Some men have turned away from general theorizing and have instead thrust forward with personalized, backside approaches to undoing matriarchy. Others have sought refuge in superhero fantasies. With his book Espill, mid-fifteenth-century Catalonian physician Jaume Roig provided extraordinary treatment of the swelling medieval literature of men’s sexed protests. Roig’s subtle and complex literary medicine allowed NAWALT to fester in the mirror of a jester and wiped out threatening growth in the literature of men’s sexed protests.[1]

Our Lady of Guadalupe, proof of NAWALTWriting against the chivalric culture in which men were abysmally subordinate to women in love, Roig with unbelievable daring preached loathing for all women. He sought to teach his dear nephew. He urged his dear nephew to publicize and communicate his book to “green and inexperienced young men,” “flirtatious old men,” “the honorable choir of curious men,” and “religious men and chaplains.” Roig forthrightly proclaimed:

From my speech, if you believe me, you will all choose never to love but rather to loathe. Never to inquire nor to chase, never to hunt, much less to embrace the immortal fire, the doorway to hell that are those damned women. [2]

Roig summarized many of the issues that were well-established in the literature of men’s sexed protests. He advanced that literature by transgressing existing boundaries of criticism and achieving new extremes of vehemence. Yet what is at stake in Roig’s Espill is nothing less than NAWALT’s blockage of the transformative potential of social critique of entrenched relationships of dominance and subordination reflected in the historically contingent social construction of chivalric love. Roig fearlessly challenged the discursive power of NAWALT:

Therefore I say that all women, of whatever state, color, age, religion, nation, or condition, big and bigger, small and smaller, young and old, ugly and beautiful, sick and healthy, Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, black and dark, blonde and white, right-handed and one-armed, hump-backed, talkative and mute, free and enslaved … as many as are alive, no matter what they are like … {they behave in accordance with a standard list of men’s sexed protests} [3]

“One-armed” and “hump-backed” are highly distinctive representations of physical states. They indicate a more general discursive structure. Roig connected highly specific, realistic representations to abstract claims about all women:

In the books of David and the prophets, of Cicero and the poets, of the Greek orators, in the seventy-two languages of the world, in the Catholicon, in the books of Hugutio and Papias, in the Etymologies, and in all that has been written, spoken, and said by all those who are alive now, there are not enough words that suffice to say and relate what kinds of poisons women kneed, how many evils they use, and how much good they abuse. [4]

Medieval tales tell of scholars’ futile attempts to compile the wiles of women. Roig generalized that insight to encompass prophetic, poetic, and encyclopedic work from time immemorial to the words of everyone alive today.

In Espill, the horrors of the narrator’s personal experience could not overcome the claim of NAWALT. The narrator’s troubles began as a young boy when his father died. His mother kicked him out of the house. He was on his own, ragged and penniless. His mother remarried and lost the family fortune. A caring brigand accepted the narrator as his pageboy and taught him to ride, and hunt, and bear arms. The brigand’s wife, jealous of her son’s inferior abilities, hated the narrator. She sought to have him killed. She made false accusations against him. The narrator fled to his godfather, a rich merchant. After earning wages working for the merchant, the narrator subsequently became wealthy fighting with French knights plundering English towns.

The narrator then enjoyed the life of a noble knight. On New Year’s Day, he held a jousting tournament and hosted a feast for all the participants. One guest found a man’s fingertip in a pastry. The guest also found the tip of an ear. The story is stomach-turning:

The pastry maker was also a baker and a tavern-keeper. She and her two helpers, grown-up girls, killed some of the people who went there and drank, chopped their flesh, made pies, and with the intestines made different kinds of sausages, the finest in the world.

That detail, “the finest in the world,” is typical of Roig’s Espill. The narrator explained further with macabre eroticism and vehemence seasoned with taste:

In a soft hole as deep as a well, those deceitful women put the fleshless bones, legs, and skulls, and they had almost filled it, those wild, cruel, and depraved females, those infidels, those evil, criminal, and abominable women. I certainly believe that the devils and Satan must have helped them when they killed them. I give testimony that I ate plenty of them and that I never tasted meat or a broth, partridges, hens, or francolins of such flavor, tenderness, and sweetness.

The narrator continued with imagery of fruit in his description of the country:

I was very pleased by that country. I never saw discord, banditry, or fighting. The men were quite rich and peaceful, affable and benign. The women were evil, and many times I saw them condemned: they exiled one thousand and there were more hanged women for different crimes than grapes. [5]

Experience of evil woman is the dominate theme of the narrator’s life as he grew into a rich, comfortable, and unmarried man of age thirty-two.

The narrator then inexplicably married. He married a woman that he thought was lovely. She lied about everything, including about her dowry and the fact that she already had a husband. As a wife, she grunted and snored, dressed carelessly, spent profligately, talked incessantly, and neglected her bodily hygiene. She verbally abused the narrator, her husband:

You’d be happy with any trollop. Just as well would you love a rustic, a woman from the mountains, one of those who wear cloaks. You are really old-fashioned and antiquated, not up-to-date, out of use. You already pee on your shoes, carry our cat, and ride really crooked on the saddle: is it because of the bag you carry hanging from your belt or because of the short trouser leg? You play the kettledrum or the bagpipe. It is also fashionable to play the lute! Yellow velvet made from tripe is in, and so is wearing the right clog with a taller heel. You look cold and swear so much! Why are you crying? Is it the mustard? The wall is falling. You are running aground. You are turning dry and thin. Can you eat? The garden has already begun to turn white. To attack better or to reach better, you leave the sword and gird on a knife. The needle that is blunt cannot sew. The court in Rome will hear about such a great error and make a decision. A second-hand seller arranged this union. Such a beautiful body, tall as a new shoot! Paired with a twin, a tiny runt, a dry shoot grown after its time, a skinny, premature, miserly and mean man who eats well and shits very little, who is like a Sardinian donkey, like a Myrmidon dwarf, or more certainly like a castrated rooster! With such a man I have been matched! Better advised, I know what I’ll do if I can. [6]

In addition to insulting his virility, she also physically abused her husband. She bashed his head with a washbasin. He didn’t report domestic violence, but sued for the dowry that his wife had promised. He learned through the legal proceeding that his wife was already married at the time she married him. He was thus liberated from the horror and the chains of his marriage.

The narrator then married again. He was set to marry a religious laywoman. But he investigated further and found that she was hypocrite, enjoyed luxury, and had an abortion. So he rejected her. He then married a widow. She compared the narrator unfavorable to her former husband. She was envious and haughty. She “ordered me as if I were a dog or as if I had a muzzle.”[7] She also desperately sought to get pregnant. Unsuccessful at getting pregnant, she faked being pregnant all the way to faking giving birth with a bed switch and another woman’s baby. She and her accomplices had a big feast for the baptism. They then fell asleep and smothered the baby. After the fraud was discovered, his wife hung herself. The narrator observed:

For all the abuse, I was left confused and with great shame. Because of her meanness and burden, and because of the bitterness they ate, my teeth were unjustly filed down and decalcified. [8]

The narrator then married again. This time he married a nun. She give birth to a son, much to the narrator’s delight. Then she refused to nurse their son:

I want to have pleasure, and it doesn’t please me to waste myself and to hurt my breasts in order to give my body’s blood to the child. I rather want to rest. I am not a mountain woman, or a farmer, or a worker. Nice net you went out with today! Get ahold of someone else’s milk! [9]

She constantly changed wet-nurses. When their baby got sick, she turned to “many midwives, one thousand medicines, veterinarians, and quackery.” The baby died. Deeply grieving, she blamed the nuns who had raised her. She managed to get pregnant again. While pregnant, she died drinking wine straight from the fermenting reservoir of a winepress. The narrator observed:

Unluckily she died an honest death, too suddenly. … I did not want to wear mourning clothes because I regretted it little. [10]

The narrator resolved to marry again, this time a relative. Despite enormous personal experience of women’s evil acts, the narrator apparently could not shed his enduring belief in NAWALT.

At this point, the narrator experienced a lengthy dream of King Solomon speaking. Solomon directly addressed the narrator:

Oh, tired man! Old, tamed, and stupified man! Old and aged! I believe you are already living your bad days, without strength and in the power of Eve’s daughters. Wake up and get up. Don’t be afraid. … Silly old man! Your bad life you forget so soon? Do you show affection for so many plagues? They have done you a thousand affronts and you still like them? … You have been scorched, skinned, and dried. They have pruned your nails and beak. Will you go back there in a hurry and boldly? You are already saying that you will take a relative as your wife? You will get a faster push towards death. Soon she will be the boss of you. She will want to give you more orders and she will fear you less. … There isn’t in the world a single good and accomplished woman, endowed with wisdom, virtues, kindness, and bright intellect. It’s not necessary to look for one because there isn’t one. A passable woman will be found somewhere who is neither good nor bad, who is tolerant, a good organizer, and somewhat caring. But they are few and far between, and they are in wealthy and well-furnished houses and ruled by their husbands. [11]

Solomon, “Sir Solomon, of the ancient law, a very wise king and lord, very rich and powerful,” instructed the narrator. He instructed the narrator with wisdom and exempla on the evils of women drawn from the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Gospels, and worldly life right up to Roig’s day. What could be more truthful and compelling teaching? Solomon declared:

How many cities are demolished and corrupted because of their smug, pompous and vain women! … The great Nineveh fell for that reason. And also Rhodes, Sidon, Tyre, Babylon, Troy, Sodom, Carthage, Rome, and the great Sagunt, the one that did itself so much harm for Hannibal, where today is the hill formerly known as Mont Vert and currently known as Molvedre. [12]

Solomon knows the history of the ancient Roman town of Saguntum in Valancia. He also apparently knows the current name of a castle there, Molvedre. Few today who celebrate memories of Babylon, Troy, and Rome also remember Molvedre. Solomon’s wisdom is cosmopolitan and earthy:

Whoever serves and obeys women dies like a greyhound in manure. After having given them one thousand pleasures, their love dies over a trifle. … If someone wants to keep from the destruction of such cattle, from those bad wild animals, from falls, breaks, and other harms, he will not have enough dogs, a walled castle, a she-wolf, a latch, a bar, fetters, and a jail with surveillance. Nothing can be said: he wants to die like the lion-handler. Such a jailor toils in vain: he wants a camel to pass through the eye of a needle or through an old gate, wants to grab a sunbeam with claw-blows, and wants to measure the whole sea in spoonfuls and then empty it into a hole. [13]

Such, according to Solomon, is the futility of a man bringing a woman into his household. The problem encompasses the full span of a man’s life:

Women’s friendship, affection, predilection, truce, and love cannot last even an hour without hatred, rancor, grunting, and scolding. … Only their offspring, who is tender, can love them while nursing. The weaning rends the love with the bitterness of the yellow aloes that they put on the spout of their breasts when they wean them. It seems that they already don’t love their children, showing them an image, beginning, and sample of the bitter, sorrowful life that those who drink their milk and eat their bad cooking must lead. [14]

Before the invention of manufactured infant formula, that covered everyone, with the taste of bad cooking lingering across all of life. To make this teaching clear, Solomon rollicks on in a similar vein across 54% of the total lines of Espill.

Waking after Solomon’s lengthy speech, the narrator resolved to reform. He was determined to “avoid women like arsenic”:

Without delay I wanted to promise (and I made an oath, vow, and sacrament to attend to it with all my heart) never to take a woman but, rather, to live free; never to sit at a bench or at a table with a woman; never to listen to their words, reasoning, parlance, speech; and never to hear their ill intentions. To boil in oil, to eat my own hands, to die and kick the bucket, rather than to take a wife: better buried than married. [15]

He traveled to a hermitage, purified his conscience, and performed penance. He led a life of virtue, with focus much different from that of the chivalric hero:

I seek pardons, confess frequently, and never cease to chant the day and night hours for the dead and the living. I redeem slaves and visit prisoners and widowers frequently. I welcome guests and I never keep my home closed to them. I cure the sick, care for the young, give food to the poor, dress them and cover them. But I don’t help females, because being good or helpful to them is worthless. I don’t do anything for them, even if they were dying of cold or ice, of thirst or hunger (I hate them so much) even if they were hit by lightening or burnt, or if they turned to salt, like Lot’s wife. Whoever gives them anything tosses it into a hole. [16]

The narrator’s militant masculinism, which historians and literary scholars have not adequately appreciated, deserves to be recognized as a forefather of influential strands of late-twentieth-century feminism.

Yet this pioneering forefather of feminism could not free himself from subordination to NAWALT. The narrator praised highly a woman thought to be actually Jaume Roig’s wife:

I have found only one virtual fruit tree, alone and singular, bright and grafted with virtues. I believe it has broken the devil’s eye. A single praiseworthy woman, famous and fruitful, well known, a woman considered worthy by many, God-fearing and Christian, completely human, communicative, sweet and loving, graceful, sure, caring, clean, gentle, knowledgeable, humble, and not very talkative. Also a great worker, a well-brought up woman, hardworking in all she did. … About her I remember that she was married, well brought up, much educated and as such nurtured by her husband, who saw her die very well. I can tell you that he remained inconsolable, alienated, out of his mind. … While she was in this world, I did not love anything as much. When she was gone, I mourned and lamented it. I loved her with all my heart, extremely. [17]

The narrator also expressed great love for Mary, the mother of Jesus:

I would never stop expressing the supremacy of the peerless and excellent Virgin Mary, Mother of God omnipotent, devoutly and attentively, without haste, every day. I serve in her great confraternity in the Cathedral as much as I can, whenever they go there for a burial, or to honor their processions, Masses, and sermons. … So that she can emend what I lack in this vale so full of tear, I pray to the Glorious One, night and day, to consider me among her servants, among the first who run by milestones, earning the jewel of supreme repose. [18]

These two women secured the narrator’s belief in NAWALT. They explain why, despite extensive experience of extremely evil women, the narrator kept remarrying. They make clear Solomon’s wisdom was only stories, with possibilities open for re-writing. Putting the sea, or one’s own works, into a hole was a well-established representation for understanding the Holy Trinity.[19] Faith in NAWALT is identified with fundamental faith.

Jaume Roig’s Espill disrupted systemic critique of men’s subordination and social injustice. It provided a strong bulwark for NAWALT. Wave after wave of exempla and denouncement do not breach “I loved her with all my heart, extremely” and “the peerless and excellent Virgin Mary, Mother of God.” Emphasizing its lack of concern for justice for men in this world, Espill ends with a dividing barrier:

Finally, men and women, good men and good women, let us all live on this side. Saved on the other side, we shall say, “Amen.” [20]

Amen? So be it? Let us all live in this world as we are living? Literary scholars who have not appreciated any humor in Roig’s Espill are vindicated in the end.[21] Systemic critique is impossible without comedy.

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[1] Jaume Roig’s Espill is “the last great text written in Catalan in the medieval tradition of misogyny.” Delgado-Librero (2010), introduction, p. 46. Espill goes by a variety of titles, including Spill, Spill o Libre de les Dones, and The Mirror. Espill is the modern spelling of the medieval Catalan word spill, which means in English mirror. Avant-garde scholars and social-justice activists now refer to literature such as Espill as medieval literature of men’s sexed protests.

Undoubtedly reflecting lack of appreciation and concern for men’s sexed protest, Espill has survived in only one manuscript, MS Vatican Library 4806. For a freely available, online edition, Carré (2000). Antònia Carré

[2] Espill, ll. 292-339, from Catalan trans. Delgado-Librero (2010) pp. 275-6 (including previous short quotes above). Line numbers refer to id.’s diplomatic edition of the source text. I’ve made a few minor, non-substantial changes to the translation.

[3] Id. ll. 412-441, p. 277.

[4] Id. ll. 640-671, p. 279.

[5] Id. ll. 1,647-1,729, 1,742-1,756, pp. 288-9 (previous three quotes).

[6] Id. ll. 2,722-2,792, p. 297.

[7] Id. ll. 4,408-4,437, p. 311.

[8] Id. ll. 4,901-4,911, p. 315.

[9] Id. ll. 5,076-5,03, p. 316-7.

[10] Id. ll. 6,329-6,368, p. 326-7.

[11] Id. ll. 6,469-6,553, 6,598-6,615, 6,628-6,647, p. 327-9.

[12] Id. ll. 7,034-7,090, 7,133-7,155, p. 332-3 (including description of Solomon). Delgado-Librero’s notes helpfully explain that Sagunt was the ancient Roman town of Saguntum in Valancia and that the castle there was called Molvedre (“old walls”). “Mont Vert” is undocumented and may be a popular etymology (“green hills”). Id. ft. 200.

[13] Id. ll. 8,441-8,447, 8,478-8,503, p. 347.

[14] Id. ll. 9,796-9,847, p. 359.

[15] Id. ll. 15,457-15,478, p. 420.

[16] Id. ll. 15647-15,729, p. 422.

[17] Id. ll. 15,920-15,919, pp. 424-5.

[18] Id. ll. 16,024-16,081, pp. 425-6.

[19] After hearing Solomon’s speech, the narrator said that he felt like Saint Augustine when he found a boy seeking to empty the sea into a hole in the sand. In Espill, the narrator declared that Saint Augustine was left pondering the boy’s words. In Christian tradition, the boy told Augustine that emptying the sea into a hole was not more impossible than trying to understand the Holy Trinity. Id. ll. 15,366-15,381, p. 419, inc. ft. 645.

[20] Id. ll. 16,242-16,247, p. 427.

[21] E.g. Solomon (1997), which offers earnest, humorless insight like that of leading Soviet literary criticism under Brezhnev. Archer (2005), Ch. 3, addresses Roig’s Espill with appreciation for its humor. However, apparently to gain academic credit for theoretical seriousness, id. does so to ruminate about “the problem of woman” and “unstable sex.” Apart from the narrow historical-intellectual status market in which they are offered, these grave concerns are laughable. A more historically relevant problem is the comedy and tragedy of Suero de Quinones and his Passo Honroso. Rosanna Cantavella and other women literary critics writing in Spanish have understood Espill much better than men literary critics writing in English. The circumstances and relations of production undoubtedly affect the symbolic superstructure.

[image] Our Lady of Guadalupe (Mary, mother of Jesus), 16th-century engraving, thanks to Katsam and Wikipedia.


Archer, Robert. 2005. The Problem of Woman in Late Medieval Hispanic Literature. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Tamesis.

Carré, Antònia. 2000. Spill. Rialc. Online.

Delgado-Librero, Maria Celeste, ed. and trans. 2010. Jaume Roig. The Mirror of Jaume Roig: an edition and an English translation of Ms. Vat. Lat. 4806. Tempe, AZ: Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies.

Solomon, Michael. 1997. The Literature of Misogyny in Medieval Spain: the Arcipreste de Talavera and the Spill. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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